Guest Post from Rachel, Reunited First Mom
Coming out of the adoption fog ain’t easy, as Rachel will tell you. Nearly 21 years ago Rachel entered into a “semi-open adoption” that eventually closed. For a couple of years Rachel has been navigating complex emotions experienced by herself, the daughter she lost a lifetime ago, and the two daughters she is parenting. After taking Anne Heffron’s Write or Die class, Rachel is eager to tell her story.
May I suggest that as with other possibly provocative posts, if you find yourself feeling triggered while reading Rachel’s story, tune in and see if you can figure out why (especially if you are an adopting or adoptive parent).
Iris Means Rainbow
I asked coworker to take a picture of me. I was nervous because I wanted to look like myself, but also non-threatening, kind, and open. When Iris received my letter, I wanted her to see I was real. I AM real, have always been real. We chose a photo and I picked up the print 20 minutes later. I placed it into the envelope, checked the address one last time and headed to the post office.
Two months earlier I’d been expecting the annual letter from Iris’ parents, which they usually sent between Christmas and New Year’s. Although Iris had turned 18 the summer prior, I had no reason to believe that the letter I got after her 17th birthday would be the last. My wait for that letter was in vain.
Looking back, I’m not sure why I expected there would be more. After all, her parents had asked me to stop writing 6 years earlier, telling me that Iris was not ready to hear from me and that sending letters put them in the position of “lying” to their daughter. Even though that had lifted the fog a little, forcing me to realize that I really had no idea who these people were, I still clung to the promise they made to me when Iris was born in 1998.
We were saying goodbye at the hospital when they looked at me, Iris in their arms, and said As soon as she asks, we’ll be on the first plane back to see you together. I drank in their words like they alone could heal my broken heart. I trusted that they meant it. I trusted that they saw me, that they would remember I exist. The years passed and I waited.
New Year’s Eve 2016, came and my mailbox was empty. I felt discarded. I felt like I was floating above the body of a woman I didn’t recognize. I had disappeared. I had thought that my deep value for openness and honesty and knowing in my bones that Iris deserved to know me was shared by her parents. I had trusted and leaned on that truth for almost two decades. My husband and I put our two daughters to bed, and he held me as my body was wracked with sobs, watching the clock tick down to midnight.
That night marked the turning point in my discovery of “Who even am I?”
Embracing Birth Motherhood
Ever since I was 16 years old and pregnant with my ex-boyfriend’s baby, I have proudly worn the badge BIRTH MOTHER. I was told by everyone I trusted that the BRAVEST and BEST thing I could do for the baby was to give her a childhood like mine. That meant being raised by a married couple who were financially stable and Christian.
Who was I to question that, the pregnant teenager with the terrible judgment? I had to be selfless, think only about what was best for the baby. So I accepted what was told: that “The Best” meant choosing adoption.
While still pregnant, I jumped into the role of Birth Mother with all the love I had to give. I continued my junior year at my beloved school for the arts, surrounded by my supportive and loving family and friends. I was at peace. I loved the baby girl in me fiercely. I didn’t smoke or drink, cut out all caffeine — including chocolate! — from my diet and forced the giant horse pill prenatal vitamin down my throat each morning. I was focused on being the best temporary guardian for this baby there could ever be.
Supposed to Be a Match Made in Heaven
When my Pastor told me that he had an old Pastor buddy who knew of a couple in his church looking to adopt, I trusted that this must be a Divinely-inspired match. The couple was nervous I would change my mind because it had happened to them before. So I wrote them a long letter to set their mind at ease. I told them that I was carrying THEIR baby and what right would I have to change my mind?
The biggest thing I took for granted during this time was that the love and respect from Iris’ would-be adoptive parents would remain true and steadfast. I took for granted that Iris would never have questions about her story go unanswered, as I’d insisted. I took for granted that there was a shared value of truth and openness between her adopted parents and me. After all, the voices that led to my insistence were those of my friends who were adopted. They wanted to know their stories. They loved their families and also wept at the lack of information about where they came from.
Semi-Open in 1998
Since Iris’ parents lived across the country (although I did not know where), I had to ask what our semi-open adoption would look like. During my pregnancy I requested they commit to sending me yearly pictures and a letter. Their lawyer would be the intermediary to maintain their secret last names and address. This way, I would be able to see her grow up, and I could stay accessible so she would never have unanswered questions.
They flew in for my scheduled induction. The atmosphere during labor was joyful. Iris’ parents hung out with my family. My parents, sister, grandmother, aunt, and even my cousin were present when Iris entered the world. We spent the next 24 hours together, sharing my hospital room and taking turns snuggling my perfect beautiful baby girl.
We overheard the adopting parents’ last name when they were paged for phone calls. I held it in my heart, but I intended to respect our agreement and not use this information. When it was time to say goodbye, Iris’ parents promised me they would come with her to meet me “as soon as she asks.”
I believed them.
The Years Bring Betrayal, Therapy, Healing
More than 18 years later I could no longer deny the unbearable feelings of betrayal. In the year after my empty mailbox, I found an adoption-competent therapist and started my journey to understand what the hell had happened to me.
I devoured any adoptee authored work: podcasts, books, blogs, documentaries. Anything I could find that might give me insight into what Iris might think about being adopted. Even though my pain untethered me from my own identity, I was raw with grief for Iris.
I faced the fact that I placed my daughter in the arms of strangers. Of course, they weren’t supposed to STAY strangers, but they did. And although Iris’ parents had fulfilled the bare minimum of their legal obligation to me and I was confident her basic needs were met, I had NO IDEA about Iris’ emotional well-being. How could I?
They had sent a letter when Iris was 12 saying something about “kids not understanding emotions like adults do,” and it gave me a sinking feeling that my understanding of children’s emotional intelligence was very different from Iris’ parents’ beliefs. The reality was, even if my identity story was changing as I emerged from the fog, my deeply-held beliefs that Iris deserved to know her origin story, and that she deserved access to me was confirmed by reading what adoptees have to say.
The End of the Long Wait
I worked on my letter to my then-18 year-old daughter for nearly two months, seeking counsel from my family, friends and my therapist. I used my knowledge of Iris’ full name to find her at the college she attended. I called the school and got confirmation that if I sent the letter addressed to her at the general university address, it would be routed to her campus apartment. I thanked the lady with the adorable southern drawl and placed my letter in the envelope. It ended with these words:
There has never been a moment where you did not have me and there will never be. I’m always here, loving you and praying for you and offering your story. You make me so proud and I can’t wait to see the woman you become. With profound love, I offer you my contact information because you are welcome in my world. Always.
I have to carry this regret for the rest of my life. I wish someone had sat down my 16-year-old self and asked me: what is it about your childhood that made it something you want to “give” your daughter? Because if that question hadn’t been answered for me, I would have been able to say that my parents loved me. I grew up feeling safe, being validated, having boundaries that were lovingly set with consequences that were appropriate and logical. My parents guided me, and although they aren’t perfect, they taught me that no matter what mistakes we make, or how we might hurt each other, we “stay in the ring.” Why had no one suggested that my daughter deserved us? She deserved me… and I failed her.
Exactly ten days after sending The Letter to Iris at college, I received a text. Iris! She wanted to get to know me. Within hours we were video chatting and laughing and crying and filling in the past 19 years. I was finally able to look her in the eye and say,
I love you and I’ll never leave.
Rachel was in high school when she became a first mom in what was supposed to be an open adoption. Eighteen years later she found and eventually reunited with her daughter, Iris. Between the lost and found years, she married her spouse and welcomed two new daughters into the world who have also experienced grief, readjustment, and claiming what had been lost. Rachel is working on a book about her journey in hopes that it might give other pregnant teens the resource she wishes she had all those years ago. Find Rachel on Twitter or Instagram, or email her here.
Lori Holden, mom of a teen son and a teen daughter, writes from Denver. Her book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, is available through your favorite online bookseller and makes a thoughtful anytime gift for the adoptive families in your life. Catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.
Lori was honored as an Angel in Adoption® in 2018 by the Congressional Coalition of Adoption Institute.